Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Truth About Chernobyl

Book Review: 'The Truth About Chenobyl' by Grigori Medvedev

3 / 5 Stars

I remember when I first heard about the disaster at Chernobyl: it was on Tuesday, April 29, 1986. I was a graduate student at Louisiana State University at the time, and I was sitting in the barber shop in the Student Union, and a morning news program - I forget which one - was playing on the television mounted on the wall of the shop. The anchor announced that an accident had occurred at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union.

The coverage of the Chernobyl accident being broadcast on the televisions and newspapers in the United States was limited, and mainly comprised of rumor; this was back before there was an internet, or Twitter, or Facebook, and it was much easier for the Soviet government to hide the scope of the disaster. But it was quite obvious that something disastrous had happened in the Soviet Union, and as more details began to emerge over the following weeks, it became clear that the world's worst nuclear disaster had taken place.

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, I thought I would read one of the first books that addressed the phenomenon: Grigori Medvedev's The Truth About Chernobyl, which first was published in 1989 in Russia, followed by this English language translation (274 pp.; Basic Books) which was released in 1991.

The capsule summary: early in the morning of April 26, 1986, there was a catastrophic explosion of Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at Pripyat, Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union). The accident led to the release of massive amounts of radioactive particulates (400 times more than that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb detonation) into the atmosphere, with fallout covering large areas of western and northern Europe. 

The plant managers initially refused to believe that the reactor had been destroyed, and told the Soviet authorities in Moscow that the plant had suffered minor damage from a turbine explosion. It wasn't until the afternoon of April 27 that the authorities began the evacuation of the entire population (approximately 50,000 people) from Pripyat. 

(an excellent photoessay on the disaster is available here)

Only the self-sacrificial actions of  engineers and firefighters prevented the reactor from undergoing additional, even more disastrous, explosions. Using a labor force of a quarter of a million workers, by November 1986 a concrete 'sarcophagous' was erected over the ruins of the reactor. A massive effort to collect and bury radioactive debris and soil from the areas surrounding Pripyat continued into 1987. Ukrainian officials have declared that the area around Chenobyl will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years.

Grigori Medvedev was a nuclear engineer who, in 1986, was working at the Soviet government's 'Suyuzatomenergostroy' national energy directorate. Medvedev had worked at a number of nuclear power plants in the USSR, including a stint as a deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl in the 1970s; he even had been hospitalized for radiation sickness (for an exposure that he does not detail). In May, 1986, he was sent by his management to Chernobyl to investigate the situation and report back. Much of the book's contents are derived from his observations and analysis associated with that investigation.

At the time the book was published in 1989, the Soviet government had refused to release to the public the complete truth of its investigations into the causes of the accident; this despite the emphasis on 'glasnost' by the Gorbachev presidency. So much of Medvedev's book is devoted - sometimes in an oblique way - to condemning the Soviet system, which in 1989 was a risky action even for a well-regarded engineer and subject matter expert like himself.

The first 50 pages of 'The Truth About Chernobyl' are devoted to excoriating the Chernobyl plant bureaucrats who overlooked safety problems, and ordered the ill-advised experiment that led to the reactor explosion. 

These bureaucrats (Viktor Bryukhanov, Nikolai Fomin, and Anatoly Dyatlov) had little experience in the operation of nuclear power plants and were placed in positions of seniority mainly through political connection (which of course included membership in the Communist Party) rather than technical expertise.

Medvedev also has little respect for the Soviet bureaucracy that supervised the construction and operation of nuclear power plants across the country, many of which had secret histories of accidents and near-disasters, the result of design flaws in the reactors and shoddy construction.

The narrative then moves to a highly technical overview of the reactor's operation and the actions that led to the explosion; this is weakest part of the book, as Medvedev makes little effort to make his prose accessible to the layman. The presence of explanatory diagrams, charts, or schematics would have made reading this section much easier, but they are absent.

Where the book is strongest is in its chronological account of the actions taken after the explosion, on up to the second week in May, when Medvedev left the area to return to Moscow. These accounts provide insight into the confusion and disbelief, as well as the stupidity of many senior bureaucrats and officials, that exacerbated the severity of the situation.

Medvedev also presents a chapter on the fate of the workers and firemen who were transferred to Clinic No. 6 in Moscow for treatment of acute radiation exposure; the details of how many of these individuals succumbed are graphic and unsettling, and Medvedev uses these details to underscore the toll that the ineptitude and negligence of the Soviet system extracted from its citizens.

One of the weaknesses of The Truth About Chernobyl is that it fails to cover the events after the first week of May, at which time Medvedev returned to Moscow.....thus, readers must consult other books for the epic tale of the thousands of 'liquidators' and construction personnel who cleaned up the area in the vicinity of the reactor and constructed the massive sarcophagous that entombs it to this day.

Summing up: while The Truth About Chernobyl lacks the insights of books written at a later time point post-disaster, when more information had become available, it remains one of the more important accounts of the accident and its immediate aftermath. 

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